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This month I'd like to specialise on a particular opening and follow up on the question that I posed last month: Why is it that leading players, or even middle-range masters, so seldom use the Alekhine's Defence? One of my preliminary theories was that the main lines with 4 Nf3, and specifically the 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 Nf3 Bg4 variation, are generally in poor theoretical shape. In the short period of a month between then and now, two superstars, Magnus Carlsen and Ruslan Ponomariov, played the Alekhine's! In fact Carlsen played it 6 times against 6 different opponents! Alas, those games were in the World Blitz Championship, perhaps not the best venue for a reliable theoretical result; on the other hand, these guys aren't too bad at any time limit, so I think we can learn something. In particular, I'll look at the solution 4 Nf3 dxe5 5 Nxe5 c6, trying to collect enough theory to assess its current status.
We also see the two mere patzers, Shabalov (2626) and Savchenko (2583), playing 1...Nf6. Only Shabalov dared play it in the World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk, but Savchenko essayed upon it in the powerful Russian Cup in Serpukhov. These games are also of interest.

Download PGN of December '07 1 e4 ... games

Alekhine's Defence

To begin with, let's continue our investigation of White's other most popular line, the Exchange Variation with 4 c4 Nb6 5 exd6. First up is Ivanchuk-M Carlsen, World Blitz Championship, Moscow 2007. Carlsen opts for the safer but less active reply to 5 exd6, which is 5...exd6. The e-pawn recapture occurs in all of this month's games. It's too bad that we can't see these stars test 5...cxd6, since the Voronezh system, which has been the most popular one after that recapture, seems to be holding up for Black. Nevertheless, White should know the 5...exd6 alternative anyway, and it would be nice if Black could use it as a first or second option. As it turns out, even a Blitz game like this one turns out to be of value. Ivanchuk uses the popular system [4 c4 Nb6 5 exd6 exd6 6 Nc3 Be7] 7 Bd3:

There are several ideas here, not the least of which is to target the kingside! But arguably the main point is to deny Black's light squared bishop a good post. In other variations that bishop might pin a knight on f3 and increase Black's pressure on d4, for example. But after Bd3 and Nge2, Black has no convenient square for his bishop and White hopes to use his space advantage to greater effect if his opponent lacks counterplay.

After some standard moves, our game reached this position:

Black has placed his bishop on g4, but when it captures the knight on e2, the c3 knight recaptures, and Black has lost the bishop pair without making threats against d4. The problem is that there's nothing much else for Black to do. So Carlsen transformed the pawn structure by 12...d5!?, and after 13 c5 White kept some advantage throughout the entire game, with a pretty finish.

The Bd3 setup has been scoring well. Sneaking back slightly over a month, we have Leko - Ivanchuk, Mukachevo (Rapid) 2007, which illustrates the good points behind White's bishop development:

Ivanchuk played the ...a5-a4 advance (which he has used before in the Alekhine's), but here it seems premature because White controls too much space. After 11 d5 0-0?!, Leko missed the chance for 12 Bxb6! cxb6 13 Bb1 with a winning game. To be fair, this was Game/10 with a 10-second increment.

Black's problems are not limited to 7 Bd3. Caruana - Genocchio 2007, sees White, who is the new Italian Champion and 15-year-old phenom, play one of the most aggressive variations involving 7 Be3, 8 Qf3, and 9 0-0-0:

This system looks both fun and aggressive, with results so far in White's favour. I think that the immediate 9...f5!? may be the best try, and 10 Nh3 the best response.

Lastly, the recapture 5...exd6 was met more conventionally in Zaragatski - Baburin, Kemer 2007.

Once again Black felt compelled to challenge White's space advantage and his opponent got the better of it after 11...d5!? 12 c5. Nevertheless, Black outplayed his opponent from an inferior position.

Altogether, one can't like Black's results after 5 exd6 exd6 ! We'll have to get back to the 5...cxd6 systems in a future column.

In the variation with 4.Nf3 Bg4 mentioned above, things aren't improving much, and Black lost the three highest-rated games (two with average ratings above 2550, including a loss by Ponomariev to Adams). So we'll be looking at the line that Magnus Carlsen used: 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 Nf3 dxe5 5 Nxe5 c6:

The system with 4...dxe5 and 5...c6 looks quite passive, but I think it's fair to say that at the moment it constitutes Black's most popular solution to the main line with 4 Nf3. The late Tony Miles had an influence in developing and popularising it. Current top-ten GM Mamedyarov uses it (or did until a couple of years ago), as well as Thomas Luther and Alekhine king Alexander Baburin. The variation may well be the soundest continuation, and seems in pretty good theoretical shape. My only problem is that it's extremely difficult for the second player to achieve positive chances. Well, I also don't like giving White more space to develop his pieces, but at least there are no targets to speak of.

Apart from my normal Alekhine references and a thorough NIC Yearbook article, we have 22 ChessPublishing games to refer to, which will be liberally sprinkled into the main games. So I'll try to limit things to the most critical, current lines. 6 Be2 and 6 Bc4 are the most popular moves, and 6 c4 has been played quite a bit. Others are possible but somewhat less popular: 6 Bd3, 6 Nd2, 6 g3, 6 c3, and 6 Qf3. All these moves have a certain logic, and it should be said that since 5...c6 doesn't put any immediate pressure on White's position, the first player has a lot of leeway in deciding what to do.

Let's start with 6 Be2. This was seen in Anand - Carlsen, World Blitz, Moscow 2007. Anand has previously been successful with 6 Bc4.

This last move (g4) was played by both Kasparov and Polgar. It is a funny idea to prepare, but probably a good choice for a Blitz game! Maybe White got a little something; anyway, the resulting positions are too irrational to worry about assessments. A fun game.

Moving back to conventional chess, Rublevsky - Carlsen, World Blitz, Moscow 2007, also features 6 Be2, a main line in which White doesn't normally get anything special out of the opening. Nevertheless, Rublevsky is incredibly well-prepared, so White's treatment bears watching.

It won't surprise any experience observers that White plays 13 d5! here. Black will definitely have to find an improvement before this point.

I can't resist showing the next two games, because they deal with a line that ChessPublishing has had a lot to do with. First, Lupulescu - Grunberg, Bucharest 2007, which was annotated by Alexander Finkel in the New in Chess Yearbook

With 8 Ng4, White puts his knight on an unexpected square. Was this Tony's invention? Maybe Lupulescu pilfered the idea from this site! Or did it at least originate here?

Once something is being played, everyone takes notice. Grischuk - Carlsen, World Blitz, Moscow 2007, hits the 8 Ng4 move again. He really doesn't get much, in fact drifting into a poor position. There's not much for White to go on in the notes, but one try is intriguing.

Magnus' adventures continue in Adams - Carlsen, World Blitz, Moscow 2007.

This is one of the main-line positions. 6 Bd3 is a very important line, with all kinds of options on move 7 after 6...Nd7. I think that the bishop move has more value than has been supposed. This would be a good game and notes to go over. And watch that two bishops ending!

Finally we get to the current 'main line' of 6 Bc4, although that can change at any minute. I suspect that 6 Bd3 and 6 Be2 are equally good. The game Shirov - Carlsen, World Blitz, Moscow 2007, doesn't say much for 6 Bc4, at any rate.

Not only does Black equalise, but he does so without sacrificing realistic positive chances, (as so often happens after 5...c6, alas). Check out the lengthy note on 7...e6, by the way. That may also be okay for Black.

Till next month, John

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